“Is anything you just heard unclear to you?”
Tifalenji knelt in darkness. She did not raise her head to theaddressing her, because the voice was part of that darkness. It filled the chamber, swelling warm and sickly sweet, with a scent like rotting flowers. Such a thing was not particularly remarkable to one whose life was sworn to the weft and wane of runes—even a smith as young as Tifalenji did not question what surrounded her, now.
She knew when to accept that something was beyond her understanding.
“All is clear,” she answered.
The darkness rasped, as though drawing in breath. “Your mistress spoke highly of you. Resourceful,” it spoke the word in another voice, the voice of Tifalenji's teacher, “and those who are resourceful can be of great use.”
Tifalenji swallowed. She felt the air displace, the temperature rise as though the chamber were now filled with people. Daring to look out the corner of her eye, she saw the hems of robed figures lining the walls, ringing her and the source of the voice.
“Watch the moon.” Suddenly there was a pulse of light, reflecting cold and silver against the floor. “See its course, how it turns.”
Her mind raced, considering what lay ahead, the moments available to her spilling away one by one, like grains of sand from an hourglass.
“Remember your task above all else.” A hand extended from the dark, cupping Tifalenji's chin. “What we have entrusted you to find, to return to us, cannot be replaced.” The hand lifted Tifalenji's head, and she looked up into a perfectof her own face, grinning with another person's smile.
“You, however, can be.”
Erath was a son of Noxus. From the first generation of his tribe to be born into the empire, his training had begun the day he took his first steps.
Fortitude. Discipline. Resolve.
He was raised among shepherds, tending flocks and beasts of burden, keeping them well until the time for harvest came. He learned to kill, quickly and cleanly, with the small knife he had been taught to never let leave his side. It was a lesson that would do him credit when the day came that Noxus would call upon him to serve.
He had been taught to kill his enemies, his empire's enemies, but never to hate them. Because an enemy of the empire was never more than a ceremony away from being a wayward brother or sister, brought forth with honor and purpose into the arms of Noxus to stand beside Erath in the line. To make him stronger.
Kill them until they’re family, his father had once told him, when he showed Erath the dull purple trails of his old campaign scars. Erath had never hated his enemies, but here, looking around at the scope of what surrounded him, without even knowing who their enemy was, he pitied them.
The streets quaked with an endless procession, tens of thousands of soldiers passing down the boulevards and avenues of the Immortal Bastion. A dozen tongues overlapped in the primal shouted rhythm of battle chants, marching calls, and war song. The full unbridled might of the Noxian host was on display, with blades and the hands that wielded them from across the breadth of the empire. Tribal war parties sauntered down the roads, clad in skins and ceremonial dress, followed by tightly regimented cohorts of troops encased in blackened iron plate, and a contingent of brightly uniformed naval soldiers from Shurima.
And more after them, and on, and on.
Countless peoples, but a single empire. The spectacle, the sheer demonstration of strength, stilled Erath's heart to see it.
Erath's own tribe was in the midst of disembarking from the riverboat that had ferried them from the plains of Dalamor down south to the capital. He and his comrades had marveled over their oars at the sight of the Immortal Bastion, the towering central monolith of ancient stone visible two days out from their arrival. He looked up from watching his chieftain Yhavi squabble with a gaggle of quartermasters to behold it again, now within the boundaries of the city proper. The sun was trapped behind the trio of enormous towers at the center of the Bastion, locked away like a shining jewel.
The thought of their unknown enemy returned to Erath's mind, and he smiled. What could stand before this?
Donnis, one of the spearmen, nudged Erath from his thoughts, nodding toward their chieftain who was beckoning Erath over. He quickly moved to stand before Yhavi, who had just been handed a ream of vellum inked with their orders.
“We move soon,” Yhavi began, speaking in their tribal tongue as he looked over their mandate.
“Have they said where the fighting will be, yet?” asked Erath, letting his excitement get the better of him.
“No,” Yhavi frowned, squinting at the Noxian script before looking at the boy. “But it won’t matter to you. You won’t be coming with us.”
“I don’t understand,” Erath adopted his chieftain's frown. “I’m to be your blade squire.” Erath had won the honor in a blood trial before the tribe departed home. It was Erath's right to bear Yhavi's wargear on the battle train, to hone and oil his relic blade on the eve of battle, to arm his chieftain and bind his wounds, and should calamity pass, to see to Yhavi's body if he fell. If not Erath, then who?
“You shall be a blade squire indeed,” said Yhavi. “Just not mine. You have been seconded elsewhere.” He sensed the confusion in Erath, and his tone hardened. “For Noxus.”
Erath straightened, pushing the questions from his thoughts, his features neutral and firm as he thudded a fist against his chest in salute. “For the empire.”
Yhavi returned the salute, and dipped his head in approval. “We all shall answer when called, blades sharp, minds ready.”
With a deep breath, Erath put his disappointment out of his mind. “I am ready.”
Yhavi's grim facade cracked, and he offered the boy a warm grin. “I know you are, Erath. He would see you this day and feel pride, I know it.” Erath glanced down for a moment, and Yhavi handed him a small scroll, sealed and tightly rolled. “Proceed to the ninth gate of the Bastion, across the canal just ahead of us. The legionaries will stop you. Show them this.”
Even a mention of the Trifarian Legion made Erath stand straighter. He studied the scroll, brightly bleached paper compared to the rough vellum of his brethren's mandate. He had never seen paper before. It felt delicate in his fingers.
“It seems fate has its own course for you to walk, enhasyi,” Yhavi favored Erath with the tribal expression for a warrior poised to make his mark on the warpath. He laid a scarred paw of a hand on Erath's shoulder, before sending him on his way. “Walk it well.”
Erath navigated the bustling throng of a city readying itself for war. For a boy raised in a lonely shepherd's village, the scale of everything was astounding. Towering monuments and buildings of stone, iron, and glass loomed over streets worn smooth by armies marching to the next campaign. Erath moved along the current of humanity, barely able to lift his arms within the crowd. He had never considered there could be so many peoples, so many languages. It was nearly overwhelming, but he kept his mind to his duty.
Few from the tribe were learned in Noxian, but Erath knew a passable amount of Va-Noxian, the unified spoken tongue, and a paltry understanding of the empire's formal written language. He knew enough to guess at the signs and engravings to guide him along toward the ninth gate, just up ahead, where he was to report to his new commander.
Shouldering the sackcloth pack holding his kit, Erath reached into his jerkin, passing over the bone pendant he wore around his neck. He laid a reassuring hand on the pendant for a moment before touching his orders, inscribed on the tightly rolled sheet of bleached paper. The value of the tiny thing made his mind race as to who his new leader would be, and how important their mission. He was so lost in thought he didn't notice falling under a pair of towering shadows cast over the courtyard of the gate.
A sharp crash of iron froze Erath in place. He looked up from the ground, finding himself staring down the gleaming edges of twin halberds, each longer than he was tall and leveled at his heart. Wielding the spears were monsters of blackened iron plate, capes the hue of fresh blood billowing from their shoulders, glowering down at him from the impassive masks of spiked war helms.
Erath's breath caught in his throat. Trifarian Legionaries. He noticed then that the gates weren't barred. These two, of the Noxian warrior elite, they were the bars.
The challenge repeated, thundering from one of the legionaries, somehow deepened and projected to an inhuman degree by his mask. The words were unfamiliar, thick with a strange dialect.
Was it Va-Noxian? Erath squinted, remembering what he had learned. The warrior tilted his head, clearing his throat with a sound like rubble dislodging.
“Where go, little blade?” the legionary rumbled again, in more clipped tones.
Erath exhaled like a drowning man finally reaching the water's surface, able to understand the words. Still his tongue defied him, thick and still behind teeth he desperately fought to keep from chattering. Slowly, he reached into his jerkin, wincing as he saw the legionaries tense, and produced the scroll.
The warriors exchanged a glance, and one of them, the one who had spoken, shouldered his halberd. He advanced on Erath with heavy, pounding bootsteps, stopping just a pace away from the boy. Erath looked up, barely reaching the man's chest, and held out his orders.
The legionary plucked the scroll from Erath's grasp, the paper looking ridiculous in his thick, gauntleted fingers. With a quick squeeze he crushed the seal in his fist, and the scroll unspooled in a small shower of broken bits of red wax. After studying it for a moment, the legionary spun on his heel and hammered the butt of his halberd three times against the polished stone floor, the boom of each impact ringing from the dark archway of the gate.
Within seconds, Erath heard the soft, echoing slaps of sandaled feet approaching. A robed figure emerged from the darkness of the gate, her features hidden in the shadow of a red cowl. She stopped before the legionary, completely unfazed by his menacing, armored bulk, and took the scroll from him.
“You will follow me,” she said to Erath without sparing him a glance, turning and setting off across the courtyard. Erath hurried after her, looking back over his shoulder to watch the legionary plod back to his place beside his fellow guard.
Erath followed the robed woman as they crossed over another canal and wound deeper into the bustling city. They kept to side streets, avoiding the larger boulevards packed with troop movements and hemmed by rows of barrack tents arrayed on either side.
Before long, Erath began to pick up strong scents on the air. Straw, cut grass, dung, smells that were familiar to any shepherd or beast herder. He heard the low baying of animals, some he recognized, many he did not.
The narrow alley they were walking ended, opening up into a wide open square filled with people tending animals. Massive pack beasts grazed on confined plots. Men and women checked pens of sheep and counted chickens in their coops. It seemed to Erath as though the area had served some other purpose, maybe as a park or public garden, but now had been requisitioned and was being used as part of the greater mobilization.
The comfort of familiarity washed over Erath, setting his mind at ease as they stopped before a tent at the periphery of the square. The robed woman returned the scroll to Erath and pulled the flap aside, gesturing for him to enter and disappearing as soon as he had.
Inside the tent the air was cold, and thick with the spicy tang of incense that made Erath's eyes water. He wrinkled his nose as he stood at the entrance, squinting to try to study the interior. The only light came from a kneeling figure at the center of the tent, her arms weaving a strand of glowing green runes around a sword that hung suspended in the air above her.
Erath watched the magic, entranced by the elegant dance of the runes as they burned themselves into the blade of the sword and vanished one by one. He remembered watching the shamans of his tribe as a child, when they turned the air into fire for their rituals. He avoided staring directly at the symbols, as even out of the corner of his eye they made his teeth itch. The woman turned her head slightly as the last rune winked out, catching her blade as it fell and rising to her feet.
“Reporting for duty,” Erath snapped to attention and saluted. He extended the scroll to her. “My orders.”
The woman ignored him, moving as though in a trance to set her blade on an arming rack. She lit a lantern at the center of the tent, bathing them both in soft, amber light. She was tall, her dusky skin speaking of a home far from the chill northern reaches Erath hailed from. He saw the same green light from the runes flicker once in her eyes, as she glanced at him.
Erath hesitated. Her Va-Noxian had a lilting, mellifluous accent, far different from the curt and guttural voices he had heard so far in the capital. The woman's eyes narrowed.
“You are literate?” she asked again. She looked either fatigued or bored, and Erath couldn't tell which.
Erath nodded. “I know some of the written word, mistress.”
“Did you read this?” she asked, holding up the scroll Erath realized was no longer in his hand.
“No, mistress,” Erath shook his head.
“Good,” she said sharply, tucking the roll of paper into her sleeve. “I am Tifalenji, and from this moment, my word is law to you. Read, think, and do what I say, when I say, and much unpleasantness will be avoided between us. Do you understand?”
Erath saluted again. “Yes, mistress.”
“Once we are clear of the capital, there will be no more saluting.” Tifalenji took up a ledger from a table, thumbing through its contents.
“May I ask a question, mistress?”
She looked up. “Do not make a habit of it.”
“How may I serve?” Erath asked. “What are to be my duties?”
Tifalenji snapped the ledger shut. “I needed someone versed in the care and upkeep of beasts, young and of hearty enough stock. You are from the plains of Dalamor, yes?”
“Yes, mistress,” he fought to keep anger from his voice. He had nearly had to kill his cousin to win his blood trial and become his chieftain's second, and now he was back to tending beasts? “I was a shepherd there.”
She offered him a thin smile, and Erath could swear he could hear something snarling behind him, just within earshot. “The creatures under your care here may be more… exotic.”
The flap of the tent was thrown open in a snap of whipping canvas. Erath turned, his hand immediately on the grip of his knife.
“I wouldn’t,” said Tifalenji, as Erath discovered the source of the snarling.
Four drakehounds lined the entrance to the tent, sleek beasts of taut rippling muscle, bony carapace, and razor-sharp claws. Erath was told stories as a boy of when the tribes of the plains were brought into the Empire, that the chief of chiefs had been honored with a single drakehound pup, a gift worth more than three wagons of silver. He had never seen one up close, let alone a whole pack of them.
A woman in gleaming war-plate stood behind them, glowering from behind an armored mask. Her hair was a stunning, crimson red, bound at the top of her head and flowing like a crest down her back. The hounds parted as she stepped forward into the tent, a pair to either side.
“Arrel,” Tifalenji inclined her head. “You made good time, tracker.”
Erath beheld Arrel, still unable to imagine someone owning four drakehounds. “Are you of the nobility, mistress?”
Arrel flicked her eyes to Erath, as gray and cold as her armor, then back to Tifalenji.
“Our blade squire,” said Tifalenji to Arrel before looking at Erath. “We don’t send the nobility to Tokogol.”
“The western frontier,” said Erath. “How did you find Tokogol, mistress?”
“Cold,” Arrel grumbled. Her voice was low, her accent severe.
“I see,” Erath nodded. “And your journey here?”
“Long,” Arrel glanced back at Tifalenji. “Does it always talk this much?”
Erath started. “Have I displeased you, mistress?”
“Fourth,” Arrel called. One of the drakehounds snapped forward from Arrel's side, placing itself between her and Erath. Barely restrained violence radiated from the beast's muscled frame. Thin strands of saliva descended from its bony mask, pebbled with froth from a growling throat.
“If you had displeased me, blade squire,” said Arrel, “this hound would have made it known to you. And I am not your mistress.”
“Forgiveness,” Erath took a slow step back. “How would you have me address you, then?”
“Unless necessary, I would have that you not.” She tensed, as though speaking this much had made her throat sore. She flicked her wrist, signaling an end to the discussion.
“There is a quartermaster outside gathering our supplies,” said Tifalenji, handing Erath a requisitions order. “Go and find him.”
Erath exhaled, walking carefully around Arrel and her hounds to exit the tent. He heard Arrel ask a question as he left, the same one he still asked himself.
“Why am I here, runesmith?”
“Never seen a basilisk before, eh, boy?”
Erath barely heard the quartermaster, his attention consumed by the great, lumbering beast before him. A giant saurian, the basilisk's green flesh was hard as iron, and bulging with bands of dense muscle from its tree-trunk limbs to its long, thick tail. It looked to Erath as though it could crush a man into a paste without ever realizing it had done so.
“What are you used to tending?” the quartermaster asked.
“Sheep,” Erath answered.
“Ah, don’t you fret,” the quartermaster clapped Erath on the back. “Just think of him like a big sheep, then. He’s still a baby so you’ll be fine with ’im. Time hasn’t made ’im mean, yet.”
“This,” Erath looked at the man, “is a baby?”
The quartermaster chuckled. “We use the bigguns to break down castle walls, son.”
Erath glanced at the requisitions order the runesmith had given him. Mercifully it was written in plain terms, mostly numbers, and the quartermaster had helped with anything he couldn't understand. The basilisk would be carrying the better part of an entire campsite on its back, but it looked like they were carrying much more equipment than would be needed for three people, even with Arrel's drakehounds.
“Everything in order?” Tifalenji appeared behind Erath. He noticed she was fully armored now, with her rune-etched sword on her back and a canvas rucksack at her feet.
“We’re getting him squared away,” replied the quartermaster. “Most everything but the waterskins are loaded, we’ll be takin’ care of that next and you'll be on your way.”
“Good,” said the runesmith, checking the height of the sun. “We’ll link with the caravans leaving out the south entrance. We need to be on the road and clear of the city before sunfall.”
“The road?” Erath asked. Ever since he arrived at the capital, Erath had watched the armies and warbands of Noxus, including his own tribe, march to embark on great troop ships at the docks. “We won’t be traveling with the others across the sea?”
The runesmith shook her head. “No, we aren’t finished on the mainland, yet. There’s still someone we need to find first.”
They left the organized chaos of the capital behind. The towering silhouette of the Immortal Bastion lingered on the horizon as Erath, Arrel, and Tifalenji joined a massive procession of troops moving east across the southern steppe of Noxus. Like a gargantuan snake of red banners and dark iron they marched, traversing flat plains that reminded Erath of his home, back in Dalamor.
“There’s just too many of us,” a grizzled line sergeant had told Erath, waiting in the ration line as they camped one night. “The capital’s docks are huge and they could run them day and night—and they are—and it still wouldn’t be enough for the full mobilization.”
“That’s why we are going east?” Erath asked.
The sergeant grunted, smiling at his beaten tin cup as it was filled with stew and a hunk of hard brown bread. “While the rest of them get to share a damp boat’s innards with some rats for company, we get to stretch our legs a bit before we split off to berths across the coast.”
“And then where?” Erath nodded his thanks to the cook as he received his own portion. “Where are all of us going?”
“Nobody’s told you?” the line sergeant scoffed. “We’re going to Ionia, boy.”
Erath stumbled to a halt, his food nearly falling from numb fingers. He felt for his chest, finding the lump of the pendant he wore. Ionia.
“You’re holding up the line,” the sergeant frowned at him.
“The last time…” Erath said quietly. “The war. The empire, they levied half the men of my tribe to go fight.” He looked up at the sergeant. “None of them came back.”
“Sounds like you’re gonna get a chance to get some blood back.” The sergeant pulled the collar of his tunic down, revealing a wicked red scar that branched like lightning across his entire chest. “Magic. A lot of us got scores to settle over there, kid, and we’ve been patient. Now it’s time to collect.”
Erath offered the sergeant a thin smile he didn't feel, and wandered back to his billet, suddenly not feeling hungry anymore.
The march continued on, brisk and uneventful. As the days went on, more segments of the battle train branched off, heading to ports they were assigned to deploy from. Erath continued to feel isolated from his companions, the runesmith Tifalenji aloof and Arrel hostile, so he focused instead on what he had been seconded from his tribe to do, and cared for the party's hulking basilisk.
Despite the creature's immense size and strength, the quartermaster back in the capital had been right. Erath found him docile and receptive to his care, something he hoped with time would extend to Arrel's drakehounds, though he didn't hang too much hope on that. The pack practically orbited the armored Noxian at all times, totally obedient to their alpha.
Erath had taken to calling the basilisk Talz, the name of his old herding dog when he had been a boy. The lumbering saurian responded to his new name as Erath led him to graze and kept him in line with the convoy.
A week into their journey, the runesmith gathered the party, announcing that while the main body was continuing east, they would be taking their own path down a southern branch.
“We make for the Bloodcliffs,” said Tifalenji, as Erath watched the convoy slowly shrink in the distance, still an unbroken column of Noxian warriors marching to the coast.
“What’s there?” he asked.
“Not what,” answered the runesmith, “but who.”
Erath nodded, remembering Tifalenji had mentioned someone else before. He looked back at the extra supplies loaded onto Talz's back. “Who is it?”
“A haughty k’naad,” scoffed Arrel, pouring water from a flask into her palm to allow her hounds to drink. First's ears perked up at the word, which Erath didn't know but could guess as to its meaning. Arrel sneered at Tifalenji. “We are wasting our time, we don’t need her.”
“I’ll be the reckoner of that,” the runesmith replied flatly. She glanced at Erath, and sighed through her teeth. “Her name is Marit, blade squire.”
“Marit’s quite keen on reminding anyone within earshot that she was of the nobility before the revolution,” grumbled Arrel. “They stripped her family of their estate and power, though she hardly seems to realize that from talking to her.”
Arrel scanned the landscape. “She went on and on about these wondrous lands her family held.” She shook her head. “What a shithole.”
“She is an elite soldier,” countered Tifalenji. “Experienced and battle-tested. She will be an asset, and that is the end of this conversation.”
The road to the Bloodcliffs cut through arid plains and low, sunbaked hills. The heat was a new experience for Erath, far from the fog-blanketed chill of Dalamor. He took care to ration what water they had as they traveled beneath the glaring sun in a cloudless, blisteringly blue sky.
Arrel paused, and Erath patted Talz's flank to bring him to a halt as he watched the tracker. She knelt, pressing a palm to the earth. “Something’s close.”
From atop Talz's back, the runesmith drew a spyglass from her belt, extending the brass tube and looking through it. “Riders ahead,” she confirmed. “And they aren’t Noxian.”
Erath looked, seeing two tiny figures as they crested the top of a hill. He was just able to make out that they were on horseback. His pulse quickened, and his hand fell to the leather-wound haft of the short falchion at his hip. After so long on the road, day after day of monotony, the prospect of a skirmish was refreshingly welcome.
“Second, Third,” Arrel called, and the two drakehounds leapt forward.
“Wait,” said Tifalenji, now looking behind them. “There’s more.”
Erath turned, seeing more figures appear behind them, and then to either side. He barely heard the sharp note of a horn, as they descended the hills toward them.
“Raiders,” Tifalenji drew the runesword on her back. “Form a circle, now.”
The ground began to shake, soft at first but steadily climbing to thunder as the horsemen charged. Erath turned to Talz, trying to find some means to root him to the ground in case the basilisk panicked, and recoiled as Tifalenji struck him across the head.
“Focus!” she hissed.
Erath forgot Talz, pulling his falchion and gripping it tightly. He distanced himself from Arrel and the runesmith, trying to cover his third of the tiny perimeter they made. The raiders were in full view now, lightly armored with billowing cloaks and teal banners streaming from the tips of barbed lances.
The Noxians braced for the charge. Emerald fire lit the runes along Tifalenji's blade. Arrel's hounds howled.
At the last second, the horses peeled to either side, sprinting in a circle around them. The dust kicked up by their iron-shod hooves grew into a thick, whirling curtain, rising to cut them off from the world. Erath could just barely make out the silhouettes whipping around them.
The air whistled and Erath leapt to one side as a lance embedded itself where he'd just been standing. He heard Arrel bark a command and one of her hounds leapt into the dust. Tifalenji began chanting, the words hurting Erath's ears as worms of green light shivered across her blade.
“Say-RAH-dech!” she roared, slashing with her blade and sending a wave of jade lightning through the wall.
Erath couldn't tell if she hit anything. If Arrel's hound was still alive. Everything was chaos. Noise. A keening wail split the air. The cyclone caging them shuddered. Erath heard something rip, and leapt back as a jet of dark blood burst from the wall of dust, coating his face and chest with hot crimson.
He stood there. Help them, you idiot.
The dust began to settle, and Erath summoned his courage. He focused on a shadow directly ahead of him and charged with falchion raised and the death cry of his tribe on his lips. He sprinted through the stinging grit, and as he opened his eyes he found what stood before him was no horse.
Whatever it was, its rider had a glaive at his throat in an instant.
“Now, now,” came a voice, smooth and cultured. “My dear steed feasted well today but she may yet have room for more.”
The speartip lifted Erath's jaw, and he followed it up to the speaker. She was a tall, thin woman, her face hidden behind a mask of iron and black leather. A Noxian banner hung from her glaive, while a second tattered standard Erath didn't recognize was gathered around her shoulders like a cloak.
She rode confidently upon a lithe, bipedal creature, all sleek muscle and lashing tail, somewhere between a lizard and a bird. Its vicious visage bared its blood-stained fangs in challenge. The dust had cleared now, revealing the dead raiders around them in various states of dismemberment.
Erath felt the penetrating gaze from behind the mask, studying him. Her eyes narrowed in amusement as she dipped her glaive to a dead raider, cutting his banner free with a flick of her wrist. Only then did he see the others dangling from her mount as Tifalenji and Arrel approached.
“Arrel, you icy k’naad!” the Noxian exclaimed, striding out confidently to meet the party. “Where did they dig you out of? Last I heard you were hunting bounties in that wretched stink-pit Zaun.” She shivered theatrically. “Like missing teeth, that city. Hideous!”
“Marit,” Arrel said flatly. Erath glanced at the tracker. Even for Arrel, the greeting seemed cold, and he saw something different in the steel grey of her eyes.
“And who are your friends here?” Marit regarded Erath and Tifalenji. “I find it hard to believe you would just happen to be passing through.”
“Hail,” said Tifalenji, dipping her head in greeting. “Your instincts are true enough. We come in the empire’s service. Our mandate.”
The runesmith handed Marit a scroll. The masked woman unfurled it, her dark eyes flicking up to regard Tifalenji several times as she read it.
“Under penalty of death,” Marit read dramatically, before handing the scroll back to Tifalenji. “Well this all seems to be in order. When do we leave?”
“Now,” answered Tifalenji.
“Fair enough,” Marit eyed Erath. “Man-servant, eh?”
He hesitated. “Uh, I’m a blade squi—”
“You may address me as ‘my lady,’ man-servant,” Marit gestured to her mount. “And this is my glorious steed, the Lady Henrietta Eliza Vaspaysian IV of Orogonthis.” She looked at Erath, narrowing her eyes. “But you do appear quite stupid, so I suppose just Henrietta will suffice.”
Henrietta swung her long, muscled neck in Erath's direction, breathing out a chittering hiss through her gleaming fangs.
“What does she eat?” asked Erath.
“People who get on my nerves,” said Marit as she turned away toward her pavilion. “Tend to her ends, little man, and speak when spoken to.”
Erath opened his mouth to reply, but Henrietta hissed again, and he bit down on his anger.
Together they worked quickly, striking Marit's camp and loading it onto Talz. The basilisk bore the weight easily, as though he didn't even notice the added burden. Erath was beginning to understand how a fully grown one could level fortifications.
“Is everything ready to move?” asked the runesmith.
Erath nodded, and she signaled for them to move. Marit leapt up into a polished leather saddle on Henrietta's back, binding the Noxian banner to her glaive and the second standard around her neck like a cloak.
“Come on then, Talz!” Erath called, urging the basilisk from where it drank and munched on the soft grasses of the watering ground.
Marit cocked her head to one side. “Wait, he named our pack animal?”
“He did,” said Arrel.
Marit scoffed. “Well, I suppose we can use the idiot’s tears to season the meat when we have to eat it on the trail.”
“Those riders,” said Tifalenji, nodding in the direction where she had watched them vanish over the horizon.
“Yes?” Marit leaned down from her saddle. “What about them?”
“Aren’t you concerned they’ll simply go back to raiding in your absence?”
Marit waved her hand. “Nonsense. These are my ancestral lands. If they choose to be good stewards of them then fine, and if they don’t, I’ll just kill them all when I return. Worry gives you frown-lines.”
A few days’ ride took them from the Bloodcliffs. The runesmith kept their pace brisk, having the party sleep in shifts along the trail and only stopping when absolutely necessary. Erath saw her each night, either on the road or at camp, sitting apart from the others with her eyes intent upon the moon.
They skirted east across the base of low mountains before arriving at their port of call at the Drakkengate, at the first light of dawn. Erath found the docks there to be just as bustling as any other, mired in the same organized chaos of armed mobilization that seemed to be taking place over the entire eastern coast of Noxus. Thousands of warriors, and the countless armorers, cooks, builders, menders, priests, and forge-smiths that attended to them, filed into the holds of great troop ships, ready to unfurl immense crimson sails and dip their oars for the voyage across the sea.
Erath set about hunting down supplies as soon as they arrived. While the ships were already provisioned for soldiers and more common animals for the crossing, their party had accumulated a variety of exotic creatures he was now responsible for. Luckily for Erath, the mandate the runesmith carried granted them swift passage through the congested queues and overruled any of the more obstinate quartermasters. Before midday, they were ready to board.
“There,” Tifalenji pointed toward the docks. “That is our ship. The Atoniad.”
Erath's eyes fell upon the vessel. The Atoniad was a troop carrier of unmistakably Noxian design, from its strong lines and dark iron plating to the tightly bound red sails, eager to be unleashed and carry the ship forward onto the waves. The largest boat he had ever embarked upon was the river skiff that had borne his tribe to the Immortal Bastion, and comparing that to the Atoniad was like comparing a toothpick to a battle axe.
Lines of men and women were already boarding, filing up gangplanks, while other wider ramps admitted animals and pallets of tools, stone, and lumber.
“I don’t see many soldiers,” said Erath.
“We’ll be traveling with mostly laborers and stonemasons,” said Tifalenji. “The Atoniad is bound for Fae’lor, not the main islands.”
“Fae'lor?” Erath glanced at the runesmith. “We go to the great fortress, then?”
“What’s left of it,” muttered Arrel.
Word had reached as far as Dalamor of the tragedy at Fae’lor. Erath had gathered with the tribe around a fire as the shamans relayed how a cowardly band of Ionians had assaulted the Noxian fortress there. In their desperation, they had unleashed, wrecking horrific damage to the defenses, there.
A fortnight later, the tribe had received the call to carry their spears to the capital.
All of their spears.
“We embark,” said Tifalenji. She pointed to the wider access points. “Take the beasts and get them aboard, blade squire.”
Erath dipped his head, looking over at Arrel. “Shall I take the hounds as well?”
All four drakehounds glared at Erath. They somehow managed to snarl at him in the exact same pitch, at the exact same time. A chorus of angry jaws.
“They will remain with me,” Arrel snapped a finger and the pack fell silent.
Erath gathered up the reins for Talz. Marit handed over the reins to Henrietta, favoring her steed with a final caress down her jawline.
“Make sure the good lady has her own accommodations,” called Marit as Erath led the beasts toward the ship. “If you put anything else in with her, she’ll be alone soon enough.”
The open air was cold, and sharp with salt spray. Twelve other ships sailed beside the Atoniad in the squadron, their red sails full and taut with a generous wind that at least for now handled the duty of the oarsmen below decks. Gossip aboard amongst bored soldiers had spread the rumor that they had passed through pirate routes at some point the previous night, though few of them could imagine any corsair fool enough to try their luck against a dozen Imperial warships packed from bow to stern with war-edgy killers.
Erath turned from looking out across the squadron as Arrel approached, nearly saluting before remembering he had been told not to. Arrel ignored the awkwardness. She glanced down, noting how tightly the boy held on to the railing. “Your first passage?”
The blade squire nodded. “Three days at sea, and still another three, they say, until we get to Fae’lor.” He waved a hand at the endless span of churning grey waves stretching all the way to the horizon, broken only by the salt-shrouded shapes of the other warships. “I never thought there could be this much water.”
Arrel grunted, noncommittal.
“You were in the war before,” Erath said, uneasy with the subject. “Ionia, what is it like?”
Arrel did not answer him at once. The tracker stared out over the ocean, reaching down to scratch the sleek, leathery skin behind Second's bony crestmask. She breathed slowly. “It is a place of beauty, and of death.”
“All of Ionia is just one giant jungle raptor with its head cut off,” Marit appeared from behind them, strutting forward to lounge against the railing. “We decapitated it last time, and now it’s just thrashing about, making a mess, too stupid to realize it’s already dead.”
“I’ve hunted raptors,” said Arrel. “And even headless they can still gut you.”
“So it is war, then?” asked Erath. “Another war with Ionia?”
Marit shrugged. “Damned if I know, but thesure shoved a lot of boots across the ocean just to rattle swords. Just hope he has enough backbone to let us finish what we start, this time.”
Arrel walked away, and Erath looked back at the fathomless expanse of gently crashing waves. “What is the name of this ocean?” he asked.
“Who cares what it’s called?” Marit leaned over Erath's shoulder before she stalked off. “It’s ours.”
Erath had never been so grateful to see dry land.
The fortress of Fae’lor grew in size and definition on the horizon before them. The Atoniad had made speed in her voyage to the island, but Erath had discovered he was far from suited for a life on the seas. The heaving, rolling motion of their warship had stolen many meals from his stomach, offered to the ocean in the queasy tribute of abrupt sickness. Everything was soaked, coated in a crackling crust of salt that burned his skin.
He had kept below decks for the most part, ensuring that the creatures in his care endured the passage with as much comfort as he was able to offer. Talz seemed fine, eating regularly and spending the majority of the time in his pen, sleeping. Lady Henrietta, however, had required more diligent attention. A nimble and energetic beast, Marit's steed was clearly unhappy with the confines of the ship. Erath took extra care during her feedings, to ensure he did not become the meal himself, and looked forward to getting Henrietta off the Atoniad where she could stretch her legs.
When the call for land had gone out from the scouts at the ship's bow, Erath hurried above decks to see. The top deck was crowded with Noxians eager for their own view. At first it was little more than a smudge in the distance, faintly more defined than the hazy stripe where the water met the sky, but the closer they came, the more distinct it grew. Erath glimpsed what appeared to be banks of fog surrounding the island, tinted a ruddy brown that upon closer inspection became red.
Fae’lor was surrounded by Noxian ships.
There were concentric circles of vessels ringing the island, defense pickets that were constantly shifting. The Atoniad was halted by the outermost patrols, a pair of frigates that lashed themselves to the larger vessel with boarding hooks as squads of naval soldiers came aboard.
Erath noted their stern countenances as they inspected the troop ship, weapons in hand as they pored over the captain's mandate and manifest. They scoured every deck, and the blade squire watched as a trio of robed blood mages studied every soldier on board, softly chanting as they looked every man and woman in the eye.
“What are they looking for, mistress?” he asked Tifalenji.
“Signs of subterfuge,” replied the runesmith. “Deceptions. Wild magic.”
To Erath it all seemed strange. “But we are all Noxian soldiers, on an imperial ship. Does this not seem paranoid?”
“Patience, boy,” said Tifalenji. “When we dock at Fae’lor, you will understand.”
After they had been over every inch of the Atoniad, a contingent of the soldiery remained aboard while the others returned to their frigate, and the ship was cleared to advance to the next ring of the blockade. The inspections and checks repeated with each checkpoint, the guard detail rotating each time the Atoniad was stopped. Erath had been poked, prodded, and scrutinized so many times that when they finally had the harbor in sight, he questioned whether any of his own comrades trusted him, or anyone for that matter.
And then he got a better look at Fae’lor, and understood why.
The fortress had been gutted. He could make out only echoes of the great ramparts that had once stood at its heart, the formerly impregnable fortifications reduced to shattered remnants that rose from the ground like blackened, broken teeth. But the extent of the devastation went far beyond the walls and towers. The very land itself was broken open, torn apart and ripped out, bearing all the hallmarks of some incredible natural disaster.
The Atoniad drew up to her berth, and Noxians leapt to work both aboard and on the dock as soon as she came to a halt. Craftsmen rushed out to their assigned posts, while raw materials and supplies were offloaded and taken ashore. Erath went below decks, trying to put the shock of the island from his mind as he went about getting Talz and Henrietta off the Atoniad.
Standing out against the herds of livestock and more mundane pack animals, Erath led his beasts up a wide ramp leading from the ship's hold. Waiting as those ahead of him were processed and allowed into Fae’lor, he stood transfixed as he watched crews descend over the wreckage of another warship like a swarm of furious ants.
Great winches and chains hauled the wreck up out of the water, a piece at a time. Teams scrambled down within, pulling out the pale, bloated shapes of the fallen in droves. She was more than twice the tonnage of the Atoniad, and her hull had been broken in two, like a stick over a man's knee.
What kind of power could have possibly done such a thing?
Erath thought back to when he stood in the shadow of the Immortal Bastion. The certainty he felt there, seeing the empire marching to war, that there was nothing in creation that could possibly stand against them.
For the first time, seeing what had befallen Fae’lor with his own eyes, he felt doubt creep into his heart.
Finally he reached the end of the ramp, stepping from soaked wood onto cracked rock. The air was thick, humid, and dusty. It smelled of spice, things Erath couldn't place as he realized, at long last, that he was there.
This was Ionia.
Erath lost track of how long he was standing there, or how the leather of Henrietta's reins was sliding through his fingers. By the time he was aware of it, Marit's mount was loping into the camp.
“Hey!” The blade squire started to pursue her, before looking back at Talz. “Stay,” he warned, drawing his knife and pinning the basilisk's reins to the ground with it before sprinting after Henrietta.
“Whoa,” he called to the roving saurian as she stalked between a line of billet tents. She stopped, her long neck swiveling to regard Erath. Henrietta hissed at him through the gleaming metal of her chanfron, what Marit called “her jewelry.” Enclosing her face and skull, it was part protective helm, part weapon, accentuating her already vicious fangs with sharpened iron blades.
“Easy, my lady,” Erath coaxed, arms wide as he slowly closed the distance between them. “Easy, now.”
“Control that thing!” bellowed a voice from a group nearby. Both Henrietta and the blade squire shot them a hostile glare.
“She’s been cooped up on a ship for days,” Erath barked at the soldiers. He took advantage of Henrietta's diverted attention and grabbed hold of her reins, wrapping the leather around his forearm. “She needs exercise, you want to be it? Then stay out of the way!”
Erath stared down the soldiers and watched them disperse, only registering after a time that the runesmith was calling for him. He went back to gather up Talz's reins and guided his charges along, tugging the basilisk forward and holding Henrietta back as he headed toward where Tifalenji waited with Arrel and Marit. He saw new tension in the runesmith's companions as he approached, a tightness in their postures that hadn't been there before.
“Take your time,” Marit sneered, snatching Henrietta's reins from Erath. Arrel squatted down, fingers brushing over the rubble strewn over the ground as her drakehounds orbited her.
“This was old magic,” muttered the tracker. “Something long-sleeping, now roused.”
“Where did you learn to sense magic?” Marit arced a skeptical eyebrow.
“Here,” Arrel answered, barely above a whisper.
“Oh joy,” replied Marit. She glanced at Tifalenji expectantly. “Well?”
“The last member of our expedition is here, at Fae’lor,” the runesmith replied. “We simply need to find her.”
“Just look for a dueling pit,” said Arrel. “She won’t be far from the scent of blood.”
Erath nodded, growing accustomed to gleaning what he could from inferences and cryptic words. “Does she have a beast that I am to care for as well?”
“Oh, man-servant,” Marit shook her head. “Teneff? She is the beast.”
Arrel was right. While Fae’lor was in the midst of its reconstruction, it still remained a Noxian military camp. They followed the sound of ringing steel, sharper than the rhythm coming from the forges’ hammers, leading them to where the warriors on the island trained.
Past rows of billet tents were dug a series of shallow pits, each of them occupied by a pair of dueling soldiers. With blunted swords, wooden staves, or bare hands they sparred, but one in particular had attracted a crowd. The party had to muscle their way through the watching soldiers to catch a glimpse into the pit.
Two Noxians circled each other in full war-plate. One wielded a training sword and buckler, the other a heavy iron hook mounted on a length of chain. The soldiers watching cheered the pair as they measured distance and exchanged feints.
The swordsman sensed an opening. He lunged forward, flicking his buckler into his opponent's face while slashing low with his sword. The other fighter leapt back, just shy of the blade, while throwing her hooked chain to ensnare the man's shield arm. She whipped her arm down, wrenching the swordsman forward into a brutal headbutt. He dropped to the mire like a stone, blood spraying from a ruined nose.
“That’s first blood to me,” she crowed, and the onlookers erupted in cheers.
“That was dirty, Teneff,” the swordsman snarled, pawing blood from his mashed nose with a wicked laugh. “Let’s make it second blood. I’m not done with you yet.”
“First blood was the agreement,” Teneff repeated, with no compromise in her voice. “We need you in the line, Cestus.”
The swordsman barked out a swear and stood, trudging up out of the pit. Teneff wound her chain around her forearm, looking up to find Erath and the party staring down at her. Her eyes widened in confusion. “Marit? Arrel?”
Marit chuckled. “Still cracking skulls, eh, Ten?”
Teneff spat a gobbet of phlegm onto the ground. “Some of us never stopped,” she said with a grin, taking the hand Arrel offered her to pull her up out of the pit.
Erath backed out of her way as she climbed out. Teneff bore the hallmarks of a shield-breaker, a warrior of the line at home when her enemy was within arm's reach. Scars crisscrossed any flesh not covered in leather and iron armor, tales of blood and honor etched into her over a lifetime of battle. He wondered how many of the scars she bore were earned here in Ionia.
“The last time I saw either of you,” said Teneff, “we were all—”
“Here,” said Marit. Quiet descended between the soldiers for a few moments. There was a bond between them, Erath could see that clearly. But there was a void there as well, something unspoken, or even missing. He had lived around soldiers long enough to know not to prod.
“Well,” said Teneff, breaking the silence. “If you’re all coming from Valoran, then you’ve been eating ship’s slop for days. Our cook’s no artist, but they’re a damn sight better than that. Come.”
The sun had begun to sink into the horizon, painting the sky in dappled bands of gold, orange, and scarlet, drifting down into indigo. They made their way through the mess tent and then found seats around a fire as the air started to chill. The women talked amongst themselves, of what they had done since last they served beside each other, and of the old wounds endured together. Erath remained silent, and listened.
“And you, boy,” said Teneff, her attention shifting to the blade squire. “You blooded? Fought your principal yet?”
Erath straightened. “I served my principal, yes.”
Her aspect became serious, analytical. “Where?”
“It was a border skirmish west of the Dalamor plains,” Erath answered. “A quick action, pretty light.” He looked to each of them, seeing that his answer had not been enough. This was not the ignorant voyeurism of the civilian, eager to satisfy some fanciful idea of what it was like to fight in a war they would never experience. These were veterans, warriors who may find themselves beside him in the line, needing to know what he had seen and how he had carried himself.
“It was a shallow expansion through a fertile valley,” he continued. “They were big boys, farming stock, but they were brought up to till the soil, not turn it red. Once we got within a rapid drumbeat, running charge, we closed, rolled up their right side double fast. Opened them up quite quickly.”
“Any of them left afterward,” asked Arrel, “to till that soil?”
Erath shook his head. “We tried. After their elders came around, we brought in others to help them take up the work. Harvest needed planting, no time to wait.”
Marit tilted her head. “And how many of those big farm boys did you make the soil red with, eh?”
“Leave it alone,” said Tifalenji.
“I was rearguard,” Erath shrugged. “By the time the lines rotated to me, they were already broken. We mostly just finished off those too wounded to save, and dug graves.”
The memory surfaced in Erath's mind without asking.Trudging through the aftermath of a broken shield wall, feeling someone take hold of his ankle. Looking down, seeing a man who had taken a spear thrust to the belly, croaking at him in words he didn't know, but a message he understood clear enough.
Putting his speartip to the man's throat. The man tilting his head back to accept it.
“When was this?” asked Teneff.
“This past spring,” Erath answered.
“An infant!” exclaimed Marit.
“I said leave it alone,” the runesmith growled. “He’s here to tend beasts, nothing more.”
Marit chuckled, her eyes narrowed in amusement. Teneff eyed Tifalenji. “What of you then, rune-shaper? Where have you served?”
“Far from here,” she answered, and the odd light in her eyes convinced Erath that was as much as they would hear of her experiences.
Sleep was a glorious thing to a soldier. Any span of uninterrupted rest was precious, rivaling a full belly or a pair of well-made boots to a fighting man or woman. Erath had tried to adjust to the endless rolling and pitching of the Atoniad, but sleep had only come to him in fits and starts. Back on solid ground, with his cloak laid out on a flat, dry patch near the animal pens and his duties done, the blade squire rested his head against his pack and savored the prospect of sleeping through the next handful of hours before the early morning feedings came.
It felt as though he had no more than blinked before he heard the voice, sharp and cold as the edge of the knife he felt against his neck.
“Do as I say, in silence, or I will cut your throat.”
Erath opened his eyes. Dawn's light was still hours away, the moon a thin silver sickle overhead as he was jerked to his feet. His knife had been taken. They walked, Erath careful to keep his movements slow and hands in view as he was led to the edge of the camp.
A huddle of figures stood ahead. He heard the low snarling of hounds as they approached, the silhouettes materializing into Arrel and Marit with the kneeling figure of the runesmith between them.
“What are you doing in Ionia, boy?” demanded the voice as Erath was shoved to his knees beside Tifalenji. He was alert enough to recognize the voice behind him as Teneff's.
“He knows nothing,” said Tifalenji calmly. Teneff lifted the knife from Erath's throat and rounded upon the runesmith.
“And what do we know about you, eh?” Teneff looked to her fellow veterans. “Documents can be forged, mandates concocted.”
“My mandate is quite genuine,” said Tifalenji, her calm eerie to Erath, “as is the power you are flirting with opposing.”
Marit tilted her head. “Does the boy even know who you say you’re hunting? Who you would have us hunt?”
“He knows what has been necessary for him to know, and nothing more.”
“Then perhaps it’s time he knew,” Teneff looked down at Erath. “You seek a ghost. A warrior who died in honor as a hero to Noxus. Our comrade.” She gestured to Arrel and Marit. “Our!”
“She lives,” said the runesmith.
“Lies!” Teneff hissed. “Tell me why I should believe a word from your mouth and not kill you right here?”
“Because the powers to which I answer do not make those mistakes. If they say she lives, then she lives. You all served alongside her in service of the empire. Now the empire commands that we find her, and bring her back to them. My authority supersedes that of the garrisons here, they do not know of our task, nor shall they.”
“What proof do you have of any of this?” demanded Marit.
“Her,” Tifalenji sighed. The women stiffened.
“What of it?” hissed Teneff.
“Did you know she tried to destroy it?” asked the runesmith. She drew in a deep breath, and her eyes pulsed emerald. “She failed, and the magic that infused it cried out at the desecration. My masters heard it, and they saw who was responsible, as clearly as if they were standing in the room with her. That is how we know.”
“If she yet lives,” said Teneff, “then she is a deserter, the very crime you now ask us all to commit. The punishment for which is death.”
Tifalenji met Teneff's withering gaze. “Succeed in this task, aid me in hunting her down and return her for judgment in Noxus, and no censure will befall you. Look into yourselves, all that you sacrificed in this place, and tell me that her treason does not wound you. Tell me you would turn your backs on seeing justice done, and the wayward answer for the life she has led these past years.”
A dark silence hung over the gathering. Tension radiated from Teneff, Marit, and Arrel, the threat of violence balanced on a knife's edge. Erath fought his nerves, the simmering rage of secrets and the idea he may die here, on Fae’lor, with no inkling at all as to why.
“We will go with you.”
All eyes fell on Arrel, her first words since Erath had been brought to them. Marit rounded on the tracker. “You speak for all of us, now?”
“I do,” Arrel said flatly. She cleared her throat, the effort sounding almost pained to Erath. “Because we are soldiers, all of us. And a soldier does their duty. But more than that, she was a sister to us. And sisters deserve answers.”
Marit glared at Arrel, her dark eyes slits of intensity, but she relented. “Answers,” she repeated.
Teneff gritted her teeth, looking to the other veterans who gave her solemn nods. She hauled the runesmith to her feet by her collar, but did not release her. “At the first inkling that what you have told us here are lies, witch, I will take your head.”
“I speak only the truth,” answered Tifalenji. “And more now that we can tarry no longer than we already have. We must cross into the heart of the First Lands, and we must do so now.”
Tifalenji looked to Erath now for the first time. “What I have said to them bears the same truth to you, blade squire. Go with us along this path, attend and serve, and you will be rewarded.”
“I am a loyal warrior of Noxus,” Erath proclaimed. “I do my duty, and need not shadowy promises or the threat of a slit throat to do it. The empire bids I serve you, so I do. I only ask one question.”
Tifalenji regarded Erath soberly. “Ask it.”
“Who is it?” asked Erath. “Who are we hunting?”
The runesmith drew her sword. “She may call herself something different now, some adoptive name for her new life in the First Lands.”
The runes Erath had watched her etch along the blade leapt from the iron into the sky, like a trail leading off into the dark mystic land that loomed ahead of them.
“But in Noxus, her name was.”
- The events of the full Sisterhood of War story are a direct cause for Awaken. story in